TIFF Review: Margot Robbie and Allison Janney Shine in Craig Gillespie’s Hilarious ‘I, Tonya’

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Craig Gillespie and cast at the post-screening Q+A

In one the best surprises of TIFF so far, Margot Robbie stars in “I, Tonya” as Tonya Harding, the disgraced American figure skater who came to prominence in the early 1990s. Her story begins in Portland, where from a very young age, she longed to become a professional figure skater. With prodigious talent to go along with her desire, her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) encouraged her to aggressively pursue her dream. As a struggling waitress with a failing marriage, however, LaVona quickly realized that Margot’s humble background did not fit the elegant image expected of the sport. Through ruthless determination and undeniable skill, however, the combative (towards naysayers and each other) mother-daughter duo fought for Tonya’s place at the top of the figure skating world. But it all came crashing down in one of the biggest sports scandals in history.

That scandal is, of course, the infamous Nancy Kerrigan attack at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. But while Tonya becomes most commonly known for this unfortunate incident, her life and career preceding it was just as tumultuous. And director Craig Gillespie along with screenwriter Steven Rogers heartily embrace this to deliver a ballsy biopic that puts some spunk back into a tired genre.

Indeed, though “I, Tonya” is told from the point of view of Tonya and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), this is far from a hagiography. Instead, the film takes a surprising mockumentary approach that is obscene, absurd and most of all, hilarious. Though it sometimes flirts dangerously with exploitation (a lot of the humor relates to redneck buffoonery), Rogers’ script is mostly sympathetic towards to Tonya. As the narrative progresses through the stages of her life, the film explores issues such as prejudice, classicism and domestic abuse even while making the audience laugh.

Much of the film’s nuances can also be credited to the film’s outstanding cast. As Tonya’s abusive husband, Sebastian Stan maintains a nerve-wracking unpredictability throughout. Meanwhile, Paul Walter Hauser is perfectly ridiculous as the imbecile who becomes Tonya’s “bodyguard” and eventual perpetrator behind the attack. But the biggest scene stealer is Allison Janney, thanks to her take on fearless motherhood. Her fire-breathing character could have easily slipped into caricature, but she keeps the performance grounded in a recognizable, motherly trait of personal sacrifice for her child’s success. After much awards love for her work on the small screen, this dynamite performance could be her ticket to a first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

But while Janney emerges as the highly entertaining MVP, it’s Margot Robbie who nails the film’s most important role. Apart from her impressive embodiment of Tonya’s “rough around the edges” physicality, her vulnerability is what transforms this “Great American Scandal” into a “Great American Tragedy.” Though “I, Tonya” acknowledges the questionable truth that comes with telling Tonya’s side of the story, it makes it clear that she too was a victim throughout her ordeal. And in doing so, it ingeniously transforms a maligned villain into a hero we can’t help but love.

GRADE: (★★★)

Check out the newest Oscar Predictions and see where “I, TONYA” ranks!

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